Enter Platinum

June 1999

From the Vault

Enter Platinum

The road to becoming the most noble of precious metals was not smooth

The introduction and sudden success of platinum in jewelry at the turn of the 20th century recalls the story of the actor who becomes a star "overnight." Overnight stardom really boils down to years of paying dues and working hard while being overlooked and misunderstood.

The properties of platinum that make it perfect for jewelry – exceptional hardness, ductility and high melting point – are the very properties that kept it in obscurity for centuries. It's true platinum appeared on a casket made by ancient Egyptians a few millennia ago, but small amounts of platinum are found with almost all native gold so this appearance could have been accidental. The Pre-Colombian Incas of Ecuador also used platinum, but their fabricating techniques mysteriously disappeared when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived.

The Spanish considered platinum a nuisance and derogatorily named it platina (small silver). While platinum resembled silver visually, it resisted melting or forging, so the Spanish government banned its import in the 17th century. What little platinum did make its way to Europe entered as contraband.

From Science to Sugar
By the 18th century, platinum had captured the interest of the scientific community. Scientists first thought platina was an alloy of gold and iron. In 1751 they concluded it was, in fact, a new metal. Continued research disclosed platinum could be melted if small amounts of arsenic were added, that it was malleable and could be beaten into sheets, and that it was extremely ductile and could be drawn into very fine wire. (One gram of platinum yields a thread over a mile long.)

By the end of the 18th century, platinum's non-reactive properties and resistance to heat and acids made it invaluable as a vessel for scientific, medical and industrial purposes. This brought it to the attention of people in power. Just before the Revolution, Louis XVI hired goldsmith Janety to fabricate a platinum sugar bowl and coffeepot; just after the Revolution, the Republican French government hired him to make standard weights and measures in platinum.

Platinum Elevated
As the 19th century began, platinum was separated from other metals in its group (palladium, iridium, osmium, rhodium and ruthenium). After new deposits of platinum were discovered in Russia in 1822, it began to appear in decorative chains. By the 1850s, it was featured in cuff links and shirt studs.

Initially, platinum was backed with gold (as silver was) to protect skin and clothing from tarnish. Though unnecessary because platinum doesn't oxidize, the gold backing elevated platinum in the public mind as a precious metal.

Three technological advances in the second half of the 19th century benefitted platinum:

  • A furnace was developed that could melt platinum and its alloys on a large scale.
  • Techniques for refining platinum were improved.
  • The oxyacetylene torch was invented, making bench work with platinum easier.

After 1880, platinum began to supplant silver in settings for diamonds and pearls and, around 1890, settings of pure platinum appeared. As demand grew, the price of platinum rose until it surpassed silver and gold.

From 1890 to 1920, many bench jewelers continued to make jewelry in silver and gold, resisting the trend toward platinum. Large jewelers such as Cartier and Tiffany & Co. left the choice to the client.

Then the early 20th century garland-style jewelry set predominantly with diamonds and pearls brought platinum to the forefront. Jewelers discovered platinum could be worked very finely without losing shape, allowing the fabrication of incredibly delicate and durable jewels. At last, platinum had achieved the recognition it deserved as a precious metal, a distinction no one questions today.

Two pins from the early 20th century show the transition from settings of platinum backed with gold to settings of pure platinum. Jewelry courtesy of Elise B. Misiorowski.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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